THE TRANSFIGURATION OF ÓSCAR ROMERO
In his last seven sermons, we accompany Archbishop Romero as he follows Jesus on the road to Jerusalem and to Calvary. We must, the soon-to-be martyr tell us in his March 2, 1980 sermon, accept and embrace the Cross of Jesus. This is, he preaches, the “Theology of Transfiguration,” which accepts the path of suffering as the route to victory and redemption, as Jesus did when he revealed both his divinity and his impending immolation to his disciples at Mt. Tabor.
(This is the second part of a series on the final seven homilies of Archbishop Romero started last year. To read the text of this homily in English, click here. For the original text in Spanish, click here. And, to hear the audio of Msgr. Romero delivering the homily, click here.)
In addition to telling us what his theology is, Romero also tells us what it is not. It is not an incitement to violence: “Those who have interpreted my words that way simply slander me,” he tells us. To the contrary, he is “asking those responsible for this repressive wave to put an end to the use of violence,” and also asking the poor “not to lose their moral sensitivity and critical conscience.” It is not a flirtation with Marxism: To the contrary, Romero sees himself as “a Christian who attempts to defend the Gospel from ideologies that could make our people lose their grace.” And he is not stepping away from the authorized doctrine of the Church: “For me ... communion with the Pope is the secret of the truth and gives efficacy to my preaching,” he clarifies. Remarkably, in carving out these three particular disclaimers, Romero steers clear of the major criticisms that Cardinal Ratzinger made of Liberation Theology four years later, specifically along the same lines. («Libertatis Nuntius,» Aug. 8, 1984.)
Ratzinger also echoes Romero today, when, as Pope, he preaches that Christians are called to “accept every difficulty, affliction and trial with patience and with faith … by following [Jesus] along the way of the Cross.” (Ash Wednesday Catechesis, Feb. 22, 2012.) Romero preaches in March 1980 that, “The Theology of the Transfiguration is telling us that the path of redemption must first pass through the Cross and Calvary.” When Romero preached this, the message was authenticated by Romero’s personal acceptance of his own fate, at a private spiritual retreat the week before. He had been informed of imminent threats to his life. At the end of the retreat, “Romero, the pilgrim (that is what his name means),” his biographer tells us, “had found his way through the darkness and stress of his ‘harsh and grim disposition,’ through his scrupulous perfectionism, to being happy and confident in the assurance that in Jesus was his life and his death.” (Brockman, The Spiritual Journey of Oscar Romero, Spirituality Today, Winter 1990.)
Now, Romero encourages us to likewise trust our fate to Jesus. “My sisters and brothers,” he invites, “let us endeavor to make Christ a part our popular process.” He continues, “What is most important for us at this time in our history is to understand that Christ is the glory of God, the power of God,” he says, “and the scandal and the suffering of the cross should not make us flee from Christ or make us attempt to eliminate suffering but rather we must embrace both suffering and Christ.” Romero’s message—that El Salvador’s reformers had to accept suffering in the immediate term, and seek liberation through a profound spiritual reformation (and not by violence, Marxism, or unauthorized doctrines)—has been largely lost in the narrative of Romero’s and El Salvador’s story, but Romero fleshed out this overarching criticism with more specific critiques.
“This is the hour of political programs for El Salvador,” Romero observes, “but those political plans are worthless unless they attempt to reflect God’s plan.” God’s plan, Romero says, is characterized by two litmus prongs: it seeks “to free from something in order to promote toward something”—to free us from sin in order to promote us toward a transcendent aspiration. In essence, Romero tells us that the Left’s program is failing on both fronts. “Sin is the cause of all the injustices that occur in our history,” he prefaces. “The first liberation to be proposed by a political group that truly desires the liberation of people should be to free people from sin.” In fact, all would-be liberators have to first liberate themselves from sin: “As long as one is a slave of sin, of selfishness, violence, cruelty and hatred then such a person is not suited to struggle for people’s liberation,” he warns.
After freeing us from sin, true liberation promotes us toward salvation, he says: “let us not lose sight of the transcendence of the Christian message, no matter how great our concerns or our responsibilities in the struggles of [the] people.” We must “not be content with immanent energy but let us also realize the need for transcendence,” he preaches. Therefore, “The Church will continue to demand of all liberators that if they want to be strong and effective then they must place their trust in the great liberator Jesus Christ,” he says. Then, he cautions, “Be very careful of robbing the people of those Christian sentiments that make our people so noble and vigorous!”
Romero also criticizes, once again, specific abuses, including hostage taking (“enough time has passed and these persons should be given their freedom”), occupations of churches (“an abuse of the sentiments of the Christian people”), false accusations of the clergy (“our pastors who are ministering on behalf of the people are slandered by organized groups who have taken over the parish church”), provocations that endanger civilians (“the terror that the campesinos experience is provoked at times by the popular organizations”), and even imprudent advertising expenses by one opposition group (“could not something more beneficial for people be done with this money?”).
But the heart of his criticism is spiritual. Insisting on transcendence, he insists, will yield practical results: “No one works on this earth and on behalf of the political liberation of people with more enthusiasm,” he says, “than those who hope that the liberating struggles of history become incorporated into the great liberation of Christ.” In fact, he adds, “No one has the power of a Christian who has faith in Christ who lives and is the power of God.” And ultimately, no human leader could ever inspire the devoted following of Jesus, because no human leader could offer resurrection and afterlife, in addition to a better life here, he points out.
In the final analysis, Romero returns to an argument he had been making for years—that only faithful Christians could liberate El Salvador. “We as Christian are called to offer to the history of the Latin American Continent the new people” necessary to operate new structures that might otherwise become corrupt like the old structures, Romero declares. “The new women and men,” he says, “are those who with faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ embrace as their own the great theology of the transfiguration.” People who are willing to suffer the consequences of making Christian choices aimed at ultimate salvation, as Romero was.
Art: Laura Sofía, “El Santo de mi Pueblo,” acrylic, color pencil and ink on canvas. Colectiva Abierta exhibition, March 2011 catalog, San Salvador.
Next: The Church, called to repentance, called to prophecy
A nice contrast to Romero’s warning to “not lose sight of the transcendence of the Christian message” is presented in an op ed that ran in yesterday’s Co Latino, El Salvador’s leftist paper. In it, a progressive commentator with an affinity for Liberation Theology writes: “To fix one’s gaze and hope in the hereafter ... can be the mortal sin that thousands upon thousands have fallen into when they trust their leaders, who have made them inhuman, because they discriminate against worldly things, marginalizing themselves from the reality that afflicts them, bites them and destroys them in the here and now, as it does all worldly creatures.” Compare Romero who argues that, “as we talk about heaven we are not speaking of some form of alienation,” but of an even deeper, more meaningful commitment to justice by those who ‘fix their gaze and hope in the hereafter.’